Determination has been Zoltan Bathory's mindset since childhood. Growing up in communist Hungary, the Five Finger Death Punch guitarist never took no for an answer. Much of that confidence, usually misconstrued by detractors as arrogance, comes from lessons he learned on the mat.
Bathory's introduction to martial arts came when his parents enrolled him in judo classes, attempting to temper his schoolyard aggression. That discipline has served him well. Today, he's a member of the Gracie Humaita Las Vegas competition team, under professors Amilcar Cipili and Don Charley, and the instilled respect and indomitable sense of sureness have carried over to his musical career.
Zoltan recently spent two days training with UFC fighter Kyle Watson, and he regularly trains on the road. Last year, touring with Godsmack, he suffered a rib injury while sparring -- rolling in martial arts jargon -- that made being onstage uncomfortable, often painful.
Currently headlining the Share The Welt tour, with Hatebreed and All That Remains, the self-proclaimed ambassador for the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy admitted to The Life that he was again recovering from an injury suffered on the mat.
The Life: You got hurt again?
Bathory: [Laughs] Yeah, I keep doing that to myself. The injuries, so far, it's always self-inflicted, like I torque somebody or throw somebody too hard. Sometimes it requires pretty fast, explosive power. The mistake I'm making [is] I'm [too] lazy to warm up. [Laughs]
Torquing is like, basically you're trying to spin somebody around. The whole idea is all technique. You're trying to use less and less power to do these techniques, but sometimes I do anyway. [Laughs] So, I just yanked somebody really hard, to try to move them out of balance. The guy was heavier than I thought, so on my side, on the rib cage, I pulled something. That's a weird injury. It takes away your core strength.
The Life: Have you been onstage many times where you're suffering an injury that happened on the mat?
Bathory: Oh yeah. Those little injuries, like when you have a cracked rib, those injuries don't heal fast. You just have to wait. Nothing you can do about it but just rest. But the show must go on.
We're a really intense band that runs around, jumps around. It's a very high-energy show, so I can't be standing around like Stonehenge. When people look at me, they think, "Wow, those are crazy guitar faces!" They don't know, like, no, I'm about to s--- my pants, brother, that's what's happening. [Laughs]
The Life: But you know what you do onstage. You know you're hurt. So why do you keep training?
Bathory: Dude, I never said I was smart. [Laughs]
The Life: Athletes who follow a certain schedule, if they miss a day, they feel uncomfortable. Are you like that if you don't train?
Bathory: You know what, I'm just so into [it]. When I fight, it's almost like a chess game for me. People have a certain kind of anxiety maybe, or they have a certain kind of nervousness before they fight. I don't get that. I love competitions. I love to go to jiu-jitsu tournaments because I have this euphoric state. Somehow, my mind clears and there is a flow. It's actually very similar to being onstage.
There is some kind of ecstatic power in just letting your body do what it does. Your body is completely capable of defending itself. It's genetically embedded in you how to fight. As Bruce Lee used to say, take the mind out of the way. You kind of get into this euphoric, meditative state when you don't think about how to do these things; you just let your evolution come to the surface, let your genetic history come to the surface and do these things.
The Life: It's similar to being onstage.
Bathory: Yeah, absolutely. It's a dynamic thing. You have to know and feel and watch what your opponent is doing, the same thing when onstage I know who's moving where and why. It's a very intuitive kind of thing where you're not hitting a tennis ball against the wall on your own, where you know what's coming.
That's why kids are enjoying multiplayer video games these days. When you're playing with multiple people online, now the rules are changed because it's dynamic. There's a magical element of not chance, but another intelligence being involved. That's why people get hooked, the same way I got hooked. Instead of video games, I got hooked into something physical like fighting, or music, playing shows with a band, where it has so much power. I never have any sort of nervousness when we walk out onstage. It's excitement, if anything.
The Life: The same thing when you get on the mat.
Bathory: Yeah, it's the same story. I mean, I know the odds. Everybody wins some, loses some. That's part of the game. I'm not sure I would be not nervous if I actually had to run into battle with vikings with a sword, when injury means, OK, you lost an arm. [Laughs]
The Life: Training on the road, you want to make sure it's reputable, not somebody looking for a chance to say, "Hey, I took a shot at the guy from Five Finger Death Punch."
Bathory: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, safety first. I have a "job." I have a career. I have a band that I'm responsible for. I can't call them: "Hey guys, guess what? I have one arm now." That can't happen. So, obviously, yeah, I'm cautious of that.
You get into a situation on the street, then pretty much everything goes; you defend your own ass, obviously. But training is "training," not killing. So, when I want to go train, I want to train, not kill each other. It requires some level of safety precautions. I always look for a situation with higher belts -- purple belts, brown belts -- who are trained enough that they don't have to prove anything. They understand the game, understand the rules, understand respect and how this is done.
I'm a member of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, and I fight under the Gracie flag on their team. When I go to a Gracie academy, there are already established rules and it's run really tight. Anybody who's there for the wrong reason will be dispelled. And the higher belt that you are, you also learn the discipline; you learn the respect and all the aspects that make you a real martial artist, not a brawler.
But it's the same thing to them, because they don't want someone coming in that they don't know, some guy trying to prove a point of, "Oh, my martial arts are better than your martial arts." That's what's a question mark to them. But anybody from Gracie Academy calls ahead, like, "Hey, one of my guys is coming in [to train]," they know, OK, the guy's probably not an idiot because he would have been off the team and dispelled a long time [ago] if he was. So, they feel safe, as well.
The Life: How did you initially become involved with the Gracie family?
Bathory: The martial arts world is like the music world: It's a small world. I lucked out. I had friends who were friends with the Gracie family. Through these friends, I became friends with those guys. It's kind of like a brotherhood. It's the same kind of thing like, back in the days, you had long hair, I had long hair, we're immediately friends already talking metal. It's the same in jiu-jitsu. In a second, you are one of the guys, somebody who trains.
Once I started to know a couple of guys and started to train with them, I kept getting hooked up. I'm a nice guy. [Laughs] I have a pretty upbeat personality, so I became friends.
I have Gracie Jiu-Jitsu bags and clothing and jackets that I wear when I'm traveling. So many times I get on an airplane and I happen to sit next to somebody who's a fighter. We start talking, and before you know it, I have another city where I can go to an academy because I was sitting next to another guy who is a practitioner.
I even wear the jiu-jitsu gear onstage. It's good for the sport, that I'm kind of waving the flag for it.
The Life: Are you conscious about changing the mainstream perception that it's violent?
Bathory: If you think about it, the UFC's been struggling for a long time to make people understand, no, dude, it's not like a cage that they lock two maniacs into, and they start to swing to destroy each other's faces. These are highly skilled technicians. All these guys are surgeons. You don't just brawl; you don't just swing at someone and hit somebody. There's very serious technique and years and years of learning and preparation and coordination and technical knowledge -- understanding of balance, understanding of body mechanics, physics. It is a science.
The UFC [is] putting a lot of effort into making people understand this is not a blood sport. This is athletes fighting athletes. And you see the history of the UFC, how it cleaned out, and how the guys representing it the wrong way -- the "tough guys" who are street thugs and all that -- slowly all disappeared.
I love the sport aspect of it, and I'm waving the flag because I believe in it. I believe that people who take it seriously, sooner or later they become lifers. Helio Gracie, the founder of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he was over 90 years old [and] still trained. And when you're 60, 70 years old, but you trained your whole life, you're still flexible; you're still capable of moving around. It keeps you young. It's good for your health, and I think it's good for people to have a certain discipline, a certain respect and an understanding that you can be a loudmouth, [but] there's always a guy who will smash you.
And, when you're a fighter, it will encompass your entire life, not just the mat. It's a mentality. Winning is a mentality. Winning a fight starts with your faith in yourself that you can. You develop a confidence -- I can be successful; I can go out there and achieve and learn things. You learn how to trust yourself, and that will spill into other aspects of your existence.
The Life: So, with that mindset, when you put this band together, in your head you knew it would succeed.
Bathory: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Without a shadow of doubt. I mean, look, I already started with the whole [mindset]. In my country, at the time I was growing up, an average person was making pennies, man. Pennies. Literally, like, what, a hundred dollars a month? So, for me to get a decent guitar was already a ridiculously difficult task, especially as a kid.
So, for you to decide, I'm interested in music, and I want to be a guitarist, that started with an idea of being a guitarist in your head … without the guitar. As far as I was concerned, I was a heavy metal guitarist. I just didn't have the guitar for two years. But I had this faith and this belief in my head that I can do it.
Then, the next hurdle: Wait a minute … I don't speak any English. And we don't have passports. So, it's unlikely that you're going to America, or anywhere else in the West for that matter, to have a career. In a communist society, heavy metal was not welcome.
You add up not being able to get a decent guitar -- amplifier, forget it. You build one if you want one, out of old radios. And if you wanted to succeed with this particular genre, you had no chance because the genre has no voice in the country whatsoever -- never on radio whatsoever. On TV, absolutely not. Totally underground. Imagine the impossible Himalaya standing in front of me, and I'm standing there with no shoes -- OK, let's climb this motherf---er.
So, I had no choice but have an unbending faith that this will happen. This just has to because I said so. And here I am. [Laughs] So, when I put this band together -- I don't want to sound arrogant, but never for a moment it wavered in my mind what I'm about to do. Not for one second was there a gap. I wake up in the morning, it's my first thought; I go to sleep, this is my last thought, the band, because this is what I live and breathe, and that's what I do.
Basically, when we started this, it wasn't necessarily a popular thing to do. We were playing a music that actually wasn't popular at the time. We just came up with something we liked. It was the amalgam of our influences. The music that we play is coming from the plethora of everything between Accept, W.A.S.P. -- you know, W.A.S.P. was one of my all-time favorite bands -- everything between that and pick whatever: Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, Death, any of those bands -- Possessed, Annihilator, I mean, I listen to everything.
So now here we are, five of us, creating music that we like and actually it struck interest. It was an underground phenomenon. We had no label, nothing. We had 5,000, 6,000 downloads every day from MySpace and these music sites, which was a huge number, a higher number than major label bands had at the time. So, that's how the industry noticed: Who are these guys, No. 1 on the charts? That's how that came about.
The Life: How did Five Finger Death Punch come to have a track on the "Madden NFL 2012" video game?
Bathory: We just happened to be in a lucky position. When "Madden 2012" was coming out and they were looking for bands, it was a huge opportunity for us because being on the soundtrack is obviously huge. But also it's a perfect fit. That's why this conversation started between us and the creators of "Madden," because they knew the band.
We are a band that, we share the audience. We have the same crowd. People who are into football and action sports -- high-adrenaline things -- are probably going to be into Five Finger Death Punch because that's kind of what we represent. They needed a song; we just happened to have one.
The Life: Are you any good at playing "Madden"?
Bathory: To tell you the truth, I'm not a big video game guy anymore. I used to play "Counter-Strike," a huge multiplayer [game], into the whole thing. I used to go to this salon party all the time, where we had a bunch of servers and whatnot.
One day, I parked my car in a garage structure. On the opposite end, there was another garage structure. I'm walking toward the elevator, and from the corner of my eyes, I saw some dude walking. Believe it or not, I jumped behind this pillar for a second. I'm thinking, "Do I have a grenade?" That's how my video game playing career ended, man. I was actually jumping behind a pillar and thinking about if I had a grenade, in real life. [Laughs] I'm like, OK, this is getting out of control, so I stopped playing video games.
Ivan [Moody, FFDP's singer] plays "Madden," and I used to play it against kids on tour. One of the meet and greet things was that we played "Madden" against the kids, and they massacred us. These 14-year-old kids massacring us on this video game, that's not cool, man. [Laughs] We kind of stopped doing [it].
The Life: Are there any NFL players you know who are fans of Five Finger Death Punch?
Bathory: Yeah! When we go town to town, in different cities we have different guys coming out. Most of these guys are the same like us, they're adrenaline junkies. They have the same outlook on life, so they're going to associate with what we do. And many of these guys are into heavy metal.
The Life: Drop some names.
Bathory: Cory Procter -- Cory used to play for the Cowboys, went to the Miami Dolphins …
The Life: He's in a metal band anyway.
Bathory: Yeah, that whole crew, like Leonard [Davis, Lions guard] and [Dolphins offensive tackle] Marc Colombo, those guys are metalheads and they have their own band. And actually, they're pretty good. Those guys are really good friends. [Free agent long snapper] Chris Massey, he's a big fan. He even has a tattoo -- you know the lion tattoo that we have, the lion with the brass knuckles? -- he has it on his forearm.
All these guys, just think about it … these are intelligent guys who are career-minded. They have to be in shape, have to train [at] the right times, have to be focused. A football team is highly efficient machinery, like a choreographed mean machine. So, these guys, I completely can associate with. Sooner or later they find us.
And [our] drummer [Jeremy Spencer] is the biggest football junkie that you can possibly imagine. When you drive the bus, sometimes there are dropouts in the satellite. Sometimes he gets off the bus, gets a plane ticket and flies somewhere because he wants to be in a hotel room, waiting for us while we're driving the bus, so he can watch his football games.
In fact, I don't want the fans to get upset about it, but sometimes, when there were important games, the motherf---er is drumming, and there's a little TV set and he's watching the thing. That happened a couple of times, that he's playing and watching. When we had this elevating drum set, he couldn't do it anymore because he was up 15 feet in the air, so his drum tech would have the TV and scream him the scores. We're playing, and he's like, "F---, man, we are down seven!" That happens all the time.
Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.